Teena Marie remains true to R&B;

Times Staff Writer

Talk about your up and down years.

The emotional pendulum swung sharply both ways in 2004 for Teena Marie, the R&B; singer best known for such funky ‘80s hits as “Lovergirl” and “I Need Your Lovin’.”

Things went up for the veteran artist in May when she put out her first collection of new material in a decade, “La Dona.” Another high was this month when one of the album’s tracks, “Still in Love,” was nominated for a Grammy in the female R&B; category, where she is up against contemporary hotshots Alicia Keys, Jill Scott, Angie Stone and Janet Jackson.

In between, things went way down, as the singer lost her longtime musical collaborator, touring partner and onetime love interest, funk musician Rick James, who died in August.


“It’s been very, very hard,” said Marie, 48, who lives in Pasadena with her 13-year-old daughter, Alia. “I stopped working when he passed away.... On the good side, I’ve been nominated for a Grammy, my album is doing very well and my daughter is healthy, so I’m blessed.”

Marie will play a New Year’s Eve show at the House of Blues in West Hollywood, her first public concert since James’ death from a heart attack that may have been induced by one or more of the nine drugs the Los Angeles County coroner’s office found in his system.

Part of the show will be a tribute to James, who helped launch Marie’s career 25 years ago, producing her debut album, “Wild and Peaceful,” and first hit single, “I’m a Sucker for Your Love.” Those records, on the Motown-affiliated Gordy label, turned Marie into the rare white musician to do well consistently on the R&B; sales charts.

The woman born Mary Christine Brockert in Santa Monica and reared nearby in ethnically diverse Venice charted half a dozen Top 10 R&B; singles before extending her popularity in 1984 with “Lovergirl,” which took her to No. 4 on Billboard’s pop singles chart. That was with Epic Records, where she moved after a landmark legal fight to get out of her Motown contract.

She won that lawsuit, and it led to passage of a law known as “the Brockert Initiative,” which limits a record company’s ability to keep a musician under contract while refusing to release any of that performer’s music. It made her an accidental hero to other musicians.

“It wasn’t something I set out to do,” she says, “I just wanted to get away from Motown and have a good life. But it helped a lot of people, like Luther Vandross and the Mary Jane Girls and a lot of different artists, to be able to get out of their contracts.”


That legal fracas, however, wasn’t what kept her out of the public spotlight for nearly a decade. The lawsuit was settled in the early ‘80s, and she continued to tour and make records until Alia was born in 1991.

“I actually stopped so I could hands-on raise my daughter and be part of her life,” Marie says. “I didn’t want to be one of those mothers who doesn’t get up and take their kids to school. I just wanted to be around for her.

“I’ve always toured, so it’s not like I’ve totally been away from what I do,” she adds. “I’m constantly on the road and when I am I take her with me. But maybe five years ago, it wasn’t such a good time to be in R&B; music, because there wasn’t any on the radio. It’s just resurged in the last couple of years with people like Alicia [Keys] and other R&B; purists who want to bring the old thing back. So it’s a better time now.”

Better in some respects, tougher in others.

“Nowadays, you’re not even as good as your last album, you’re only as good as your last single,” says Tawala Sharp, interim program director at Los Angeles R&B; and hip-hop station KJLH-FM (102.3). “If people dislike one single they can be done with you. There is so much material coming up, it’s hard for anyone to get the attention they used to get. You really have to have a stellar project.

“If you don’t have a hit,” Sharp says, “you ought to just stay in retirement. But Teena tapped into some young producers and good songwriters who didn’t take her outside of who she is, but just helped her records fit into today’s playlists. She’s definitely shown that you’re never too far outside the game if you can come with hit records.”

Yet there were times during her long break from the studio when Marie questioned whether she’d ever record again, wondering whether her brand of tough, funk-laced R&B; had gone from endangered to extinct.


“It’s hard to know what’s going on when you turn on the radio and you don’t hear anything that sounds remotely like anything that you’re doing,” she says with a laugh.

That began to change with the rise of new generation of musicians such as Keys, Stone, Scott and others grounded in R&B; of the ‘70s and early ‘80s.

It’s a new crop of singers that may one day include another Marie: Alia, who recently auditioned -- without her mother’s knowledge or string-pulling -- and was accepted into a special music program in her school district run by Marie’s friend and associate, keyboardist-composer Patrice Rushen.

Marie is transformed from seasoned music-biz pro into proud mom when discussing Alia, and doesn’t sound a whit hurt that her daughter chose a song by Keys to sing at a school program recently.

With the exposure her mom’s new record has gotten, classmates have figured out who their friend Alia’s famous mother is.

“I went to pick up my daughter from school one day, and a couple of her 13-year-old friends came running up and said, ‘I love that “Still In Love” song--you’re the one who’s with Cash Money, aren’t you?’ ”


That’s Cash Money Records, the hip-hop label that is home to Big Tymers, Lil’ Wayne and other rappers. Marie was as surprised as anyone to hear that label execs wanted her as the first act signed to Cash Money Classics, an offshoot label devoted to classic R&B; and hip-hop.

“My record was pretty much done when the guys from Cash Money heard it, and they liked it the way that it was,” she says. “When I went to New Orleans to meet with them, I was thinking, ‘What am I gonna do at Cash Money?’

“I told them, ‘We’re at opposite ends of the pole -- what are you going to want me to do?’ But they said, ‘We don’t want you to do us, we want you to do the same kind of music you’ve always done.’ That felt really good.”


Teena Marie

Where: House of Blues, 8430 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood

When: 8 p.m. Friday

Price: $90

Contact: (323) 848-5100